Niebuhr's The Church and Culture (1951)

H. Richard Niebuhr (1884-1962), the son of a minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America, was ordained in the Evangelical Synod in 1916. Trained as a Christian ethicist having earned his PhD at Yale, Niebuhr was influenced by Karl Barth and Ernst Troeltsch and subsequently influenced James Gustofson and Stanley Hauerwas. He is known as one of the influencial voices of post-liberal theology, sometimes called the Yale School.

In 1951,  his classic Christ and Culture was published.  More accurately a reflection on the way the church has engaged with and responded to culture across time, this book is rooted in and expands the writings of Ernst Troeltsch. 

Troeltsch identified three categories of Christian Community:
*  CHURCH – the institution endowed with grace and salvation as a consequence of the work of redemption. In this category, there is no subjective standard of holiness because it is presumed. Troeltsch’s church incorporates the masses into communal life and adapts itself to the world.
* SECT – a voluntary society made up of intentional believers committed to strict holiness standards and united by a common experience of grace. Sect members separate themselves from the world, living in small groups that emphasize the Law over Grace
* MYSTICISM – a purely, inward experience that transposes doctrinal formulations and formal liturgy

While this text was written in 1951, it offers a set of powerful tools for talking about the church and how a oparticular community relates its culture. In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr offers five types within which he suggests all churches can be categorized. It is important to note that there are limits to any form of categorization like this. Niebuhr recognizes this when he offers the disclaimer “typology is the effort to order these many elements into families in such a way that some of the characteristic combinations of principles can be understood (xxxvii)… the type is a mental construct of which no individual wholly conforms (xxxviii).” With this caution in mind, consider his types and use them to understand the relationship your faith community has with its context.

* Christ Against Culture
The first type is analogous to Troeltsch’s sect and involves a separation of the holy Christian community from the sinful world. In this type, the church and Culture are in oppposition. Makiing clear distinctions between the sacred and profane, it requires Christians to abandon wholly the customs and institutions of the “heathen” society and to withdraw, either physically or by rejecting society’s norms. Examples include monastic orders, the Amish, and some sects. Culturally, this type of church rejects contemporary resources like the media and the appeals of Media, and calls to return to RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALS.

In this model, creation reveals the sacred. Here. the culture accommodes Christian visions and goals. As such, Christ and the highest expressions and aspirations of culture are in agreement. Protestant Liberalism of the 19th century exemplifies this accommodation between Christianity and the world and suggests a fundamental agreement between the values of the church and society. Here, Jesus is the great hero and teacher who, in concert with democratic principles, works to create a peaceful, cooperative society.  Churches in this category recognize the work of the Spirit in all of creation and feel called to use contemporary resources as tools to communicate religious values, beliefs and answers.  They readily will use technology and understand media as a “pipeline” for “delivering” the Good News.This world view is critiqued for saving the saved, reinforcing cultural values and focusing on “feeling good” over “being good.”

The third type is the Medieval synthesis which regards Christ as above culture, the supernatural guide to human aspirations.  Christianity brings culture “up”to a higher level of fulfillment. In this model, culture leads people to Christ, but Christ must enter into situations “from above” with gifts which human aspirations cannot attain without his assistance.  In this model, Christ, “draws up” society to a higher level of attainment as the church works to cultivate God’s creation in the here and now in preparation for an ultimate communion of the soul with God. Cultural tools like the media are seen as capable of serving the Good, with God’s help.

* Christ and Culture in Paradox 
The fourth type is called dualistic. Niebuhr has in mind Luther and Kierkegaard, who recognize the authority of social structures, but also place them under the judgment of God. It recognizes the necessity and authority of both Christ and culture, but also their opposition and believes that life can be lived in tension between demands of Christ and Culture in hope of justification which lies beyond history. This  is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.

* Christ the Transformer of Culture  
Niebuhr’s fifth type is conversionist. It recognizes the fallenness of human beings, but it also believes that transformation in this world is possible, through God’s grace.  Perversion is transmitted by culture, therefore, Christ stands in JUDGMENT of all human institutions and Christ converts people through FAITH. (“Turn from sin and pride… Calvin, Wesley, Augustine) This type considers God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them and looks more at the divine “now” than  preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (Harper and Row, 1951)
Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Westminster John Knox, 1992)


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